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FAA, Controllers at Odds Over Radar

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Federal Aviation Administration says the beleaguered radar system at Palm Springs International Airport, which was blamed for multiple “close calls,” has been repaired--although a representative of air traffic controllers at the airport says the fixes are not adequate.

A stronger radar beacon has been installed and, since its activation Sunday night, there have been no problems tracking commercial aircraft, said Kirsty Dunn, an FAA spokeswoman.

But Curtis Warren, union president for Palm Springs’ air traffic controllers, said the system is still woefully inadequate and desperately in need of replacement to avoid a midair catastrophe.

“The FAA has put a dress on a pig,” Warren said. “However, it’s still a pig.”

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At issue is a 2 1/2-year-old radar system that was beset by so many internal glitches that radar blips hopscotched across or disappeared from the screen and altitude data were sometimes inaccurate.

The problem was blamed in part on computer software that failed to accurately relay raw information to radar screens in the traffic control tower.

The FAA shut down the system Dec. 20 for repairs and commercial aircraft were directed to the airport under visual flight rules, with guidance by air traffic controllers.

While FAA technicians struggled to repair the system, the Marine Corps installed a battlefield radar system Jan. 9 as a stopgap measure.

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Last week, two small private planes tapped wings in midair but both landed safely--one in a field alongside a busy road--with only minor injuries to their occupants. The cause of the collision remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Since the stronger radar beacon was activated Sunday and other repairs were completed, the system has been operating without incident, Dunn said.

“We’ll continue to evaluate it, but it is now performing optimally,” Dunn said.

Dunn conceded that the airport needs an entirely new radar system to better accommodate the region’s unusual challenges to radar--including mountains, towering windmills and hot summer weather, which all can distort radar readings.

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“It’s a fairly unique environment and quite a challenge,” Dunn said. But a new-generation radar system, costing about $30 million, is not scheduled to be installed in Palm Springs until 2005, she said.

Warren said air traffic controllers were reluctant to operate the repaired radar system and insisted that, during a shakedown period, they not be held responsible for aircraft coming too close to one another.

Warren said a one-day evaluation Sunday of the radar beacon was insufficient to determine if the system was repaired “to a degree of sustainability and reliability.”

“Once the weather turns warmer and the inversion layer that is inherent to the Coachella Valley returns, the radar will show the same pattern of dropped and vanishing targets that it has consistently shown for the past three years,” Warren predicted.

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Characterizing the current radar situation as grave, Warren said the FAA’s statement that the system is now operating properly is “benign rhetoric meant to appease the flying public.”

Dunn disagreed, saying: “If at any time we felt safety was being compromised, we’d take immediate action.”


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